The New Boy Wonders – Establishing Robin in a world without Batman

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I don’t envy writers who have to try to separate Robin from Batman. From his very first appearances in the 1940s, Robin’s relationship with Batman has always been characterized as one of a father and his sons. Even under the best of circumstances, separating a Robin from the Caped Crusader, leaves a character in the shadow of the more known hero. The most successful reestablishments of Robin without Batman usually dramatically alter the status quo and forcibly separate the two characters. The recent Grayson did a fantastic job turning former-Robin-turned-Nightwing-turned-Batman-turned-Nightwing-turned-spy Dick Grayson into a character on his own, in over his head and having to depend on his own strengths to deal with unique character-specific challenges, much like how the successful Chuck Dixon Nightwing relaunch relocated Dick into a crime-infested Bludhaven.

The post-Endgame status quo gives DC an open palate to put a new spin on Robin by taking the Batman readers have known for decades off the table. With the world believing Batman has died in a final battle with the Joker, the very idea of Robin can be given an entirely different characterization. Robin’s not a son anymore. He’s a standard-bearer and DC’s two new Robin-centric titles give very different interpretations on what carrying a legacy means.

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Patrick Gleason’s Robin: Son of Batman is the most straight forward approach but it’s one that also doesn’t directly address the absence of Batman. After his resurrection, Damian Wayne is taking a new look at his life. He’s continuously confronted by death and he’s no longer able to shove down his guilt and regret over his own bloody past. It’s a natural growth for the character. In the Peter Tomasi run on Batman and Robin, Damian slowly came to terms with his tortured, traumatic past by seeing the future his father was trying to build. With the tragic end of Batman Incorporated, Grant Morrison showed Damian’s final turn away from Ra’s and Talia’s plans for him and embrace of his father’s path and this issue’s focus on Damian’s guilt and rejection of the League of Assassin’s tenants is a clear way to pick up what that story established.

Robin: Son of Batman #1 puts Damian on a Herculean quest. He’s writing the wrongs of his past, trying to clean up the years of spilled blood, trying to do his best to honor both his father as well as his surrogate father, Dick Grayson. Gleason sells the hell out of Damian’s guilt and uncertainty in a wonderful, haunting nightmare sequence where the child continuously is forced to relive his guilt and his own death and when he finally chooses to begin a year of atonement, it feels earned, like Damian is doing more than just choosing to follow in his father’s shadow. He’s creating a new path.

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We are Robin #1 is a more ambitious approach to the relationship between Batman and Robin and more directly addresses a Gotham City without Bruce Wayne as Batman. The issue centers around Duke Thomas, a minor character who has appeared twice in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, whose parents disappeared following one particularly traumatic scene in Batman #37, which echoed Batman’s origin. Since then, Duke has bounced around Gotham orphanages, searching for his family and increasingly depending on himself over all others. Lee Bermejo gives Thomas’s dialogue and running internal monologue an endearing nerdiness and Jorge Corona infuses the issue’s action sequences with a nervy, confident style that brings readers directly into its protagonist’s head. He’s a relatable hero, trying to do his best but still making the wrong choice as often as he makes the right one.

Duke’s characterized throughout We are Robin #1 with elements reminiscent of almost all of the former Robins. His acrobatic combat during a schoolyard bout recall the graceful dangerous dance of Dick Grayson, his over-confident defiance of authority bears more than a little resemblance to Jason Todd and there are peaks of what made Tim Drake such a memorable sidekick. What most establishes Duke’s place in the issue, however, is his connection to Batman. When the mysterious new Robins arrive on the scene at issue’s end, they’re not interested in what Duke is capable of or what he’s been through. They just know he’s “hung with the bat” and that’s all he needs to get in.

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We are Robin establishes less than Robin: Son of Batman does but it does so in a particularly engaging way. Much like how Gotham Academy took its time to establish the mysteries around Olive Silvermane, the issue doesn’t answer much about the nature of the new Robins but their presence speaks volumes. In a story haunted by the Joker’s actions during Endgame, the establishment of a group of teens keeping Batman’s memory alive is a wonderful homage to ideas like online activism and inspiration through sacrifice. It’s a smart, thoughtful way to connect Bruce’s final fateful actions in Batman #40 to the new status quo.

We are Robin and Robin: Son of Batman both highlight what I love best about one of my favorite concepts in comics. Both boldly showcase the way Batman can change the future through inspiration, how he can prevent the next child from losing everything to one terrible day. More importantly though, both establish characters separate from a greater hero, giving writers and readers a whole new perspective on Gotham and its young protectors in a bold, exciting new world.

The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 3

Sandman_014In between the big issues, the massive story arcs and the character defining changes, there are the spaces in between. These are the little moments, the panels, the moments of dialogue, the spreads that stay for years. This is a celebration of those moments.

The Prepare to Fire – Awarded to standout single page, double page spreads or panels in comics.

Runners Updo-dogs-dream-of-sheepdogsManhattan Projects #14 nearly made the list for a final moment when only Laika, the semi-sentient dog astronaut sees the horror the team has wrought. Black Panther and Namor’s tense declarations of war in New Avengers #7 shows the potency of a team of characters with a longstanding history. Thor’s first strike against the Builders in Infinity #4 almost placed with a legitimately riling kill that shows the strength the Galactic Council was bringing to the war.

Fifth Placethor_-_god_of_thunder_009-005The Battle Begins – Thor God of Thunder #9

As the war between the Thors and Gorr the Godslayer began, Esad Ribic redefined what a splash page should be with a deeply evocative moment defining the power of its protagonists and the forces they’re arrayed against. It’s among the best splash pages since Walt Simonson’s work on Thor and a standout moment from a great story arc.

Fourth Place2rcpglz.jpg“You will always be my friend” – Green Lantern #20

Geoff Johns’ transformation of Sinestro, from domineering would be conqueror out to make sure Hal Jordan stayed dead, to sympathetic, deeply conflicted Green Lantern, to a somewhat unwilling host of Parallax is what made Green Lantern #20 such a triumph. Watching the final crushing battle between Hal and Sinestro shows the deep, rich characterization of two people trying their best to be heroes and their few differences end up defining and separating them in Johns’ landmark final issue.

Third Placebr18_1“Love and respect” – Batman and Robin #18

In a notably passionate silent issue, Bruce Wayne and Alfred try to deal with the death of Damian after his murder. While Bruce delves deeper and deeper into his war on crime, Alfred silently views the legacy he hoped for slowly be erased. All those simmering, contradictory emotions brutally rise to the top as Bruce reads Damian’s last letter and screams in pain and rage for a child who even in defiance, offered him his only chance for hope.

Second PlaceSuperiorFoes4-p13“Total Heisenberg Moment” – Superior Foes of Spider-Man #4

It’s no surprise Fred Meyers would see himself as Breaking Bad’s self-mythologizing sociopath but his moment breaking the rest of his team from the back of a prison transport shows off exactly why he’s earned that honor. Fred’s a hyperbolic, narcissistic social climber and his one moment of unmitigated heroism is something worth remembering.

And the winner is…xmenlegacy20658“Gestalt” – X-Men Legacy #20

I’ve written extensively on this incredible issue but the single image of David, passionately embraced by his first power is a beautiful moment for a damaged hero and shows the power and self control he’s finally been able to seize.

Coming Up: We’re getting close to the top awards but it’s time to pick out the best series of the year. It’s going to be tough but get ready to see if your favorite makes the list.

“Keep me in your heart…” – A new god of war is crowned in the exceptional Wonder Woman #23

STK615965One of my first pop culture memories is watching the Lynda Carter “Wonder Woman” TV show while my mother did the ironing. I was obsessed with the show, even moreso than the episodes of Adam West’s “Batman” that were constantly on. I loved Wonder Woman, the way she fearlessly balanced her life, battling crime and always getting the answers she was looking for. I would make paper rings, color them gold and draw bright red crayon stars on them, stapling them around my wrists and pretend to deflect bullets and ninja stars my brother would attack me with. Wonder Woman was my hero, a woman who was powerful, fearless and utterly incapable of giving up or being stopped by any man she came across.

I’ve admitted many, many times that Wonder Woman is my favorite super hero and one of my favorite fictional characters. The problem, however, with being a fan of Diana is how poorly she’s been handled by DC. Yes, there are some great stories and she has such a fantastic history in the comic universe but DC has consistently tried to adapt the character to what the company believes are reader expectations. Is she a business woman, a freedom fighter, the Ally McBeal woman, a rage filled killer, or a woman of the people? The power of Wonder Woman is that she could be any of those people but the core of her character is being herself, facing anyone who would dare to challenge her and defending those she cares about.

ww23hairThe variety of ways to approach Wonder Woman are what demands that she not be approached like any other comic book character. A unique, creator controlled approach is needed for the character and Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang have been able to carve out a place for the character, a woman of myth and power who’s neither defined by her past or by the fates others have decided for her. Much like Matt Fraction’s “Hawkeye,” Azzarello and Chiang have focused on one aspect of Wonder Woman’s personality, her focus on family, and have nearly recreated the character around the idea. In Wonder Woman #23, the creators put an end to  two years in stories and create a new status quo for the heroine which brings her even closer to the series’ central tenet.

Wonder Woman’s assembled family of fallen gods, civillians and her siblings is a fantastic way to  drive home the idea that family are the ones we care about but bringing Diana’s former mentor, War, into the equation complicates things. In only 23 issues, Azzarello has established War as a unique being, a man worn out by slaughter, seemingly on an endless vacation of human misery, whiskey neats and dealing with his family’s issues. However, he sees Wonder Woman as a daughter, a would-be-killer of unparalleled skill. It’s clear before the blood hits the floor that passing his title to Diana was something he saw as inevitable and wanted. Their methods may differ as well as their levels of compassion for the fallen but both are focused on being able to fight for a cause.

ww23zolaThe issue of family and legacy hangs over Wonder Woman #23. From Hera trying to protect Zola, Hell preparing to take his brother to the afterlife, Apollo standing over the broken body of his half brother to the final beautiful boat ride, the history these characters have and the one’s they’ve created for themselves are the only thing that can save them from what they’ve lost. The issue almost feels like it could be an end to a series but the promise of what could come for Diana, the new god of war, is what continues to make this a series defined by the voices of creators who are willing to take a character in bold but thoughtful new directions.

Stray ObservationsoVbC8G3A couple of surprises this week and a couple of books that stayed great. Let’s do it.

  • This is the first issue of Superman Unchained which felt like Scott Snyder was trying to do anything unique with the character. This week’s #3 may be a nearly note for note redux of “Whatever Happened to Peace, Justice and the American Way” but at least it’s not Action Comics.
  • Ending Batman’s mourning over Damian was certain to make Batman and Nightwing #23 work better than the previous 6 issues of the series. Alfred’s mourning over his surrogate son’s death is a heartbreaking sequence.
  • A great issue of Daredevil isn’t a surprise anymore but a one and done Silver Surfer story in this week’s #30 is one of those great singles guaranteed to be remembered for years.
  • Jeff Lemire continues to go wonderfully horrific in Animal Man #23 and the reconstruction of the Red is a great mix of terror and whimsy.
  • X-Men Legacy continues to be the best series of Marvel Now with a tragic story of David’s sense of division between two worlds, his father’s and his mother’s. His conversation with Blindfold at issue #15’s end is going to lead to some truly bleak stuff. I’m excited.

The Year’s Best Comics (So Far…)

Daredevil_26-001Despite weird editorial decisions from both of the Big Two, comic creators have had plenty of room to create some excellent stuff so far in 2013. With the year half over, let’s check in on some of my favorite issues so far, in no particular order.

Dial H #13c6KAC2kIn a cast full of bizarre heroes, Openwindow Man is probably one of China Mielville’s oddest characters. When the entire interdimensional team is stuck in a dimension of chalkboards, the heroes struggle to procure a new dial and the conversation forces all of the heroes to deal with the stakes saving the universe brings with it.

Mielville has done a great job incorporating character specific voices to his work and the chalky, visible lettering and visible thought bubbles give the book a unique, homemade look that perfectly fits his storytelling bent.

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Batman is defined by tragedy but his early attempts to come to terms with Damian’s death offers a look at the way the loss of a child ruins more than the Wayne family, consuming the way a hero wages his war on crime.

In a silent issue, Bruce and Alfred try to deal with the loss of a family member. For an issue without dialogue, it’s a strikingly loud one. Alfred’s tears, Batman’s unleashed rage and a primal scream to close the issue make Batman and Robin #18 one of the New 52’s most memorable issues.

New Avengers #7New-Avengers-7-p7-ft-bannerA cold war between Namor and Black Panther has been brewing since the second issue of New Avengers and Namor offers an olive branch in New Avengers #7 but the runaway train to war has already left.

The power of Jonathan Hickman’s work on the title has been the inner conflicts becoming external ones. These are characters who have no reason to work together if it weren’t for saving the world and the tension has shown but here, it boils over, threatening to destroy everything the team has worked for.

East of West #4east_of_west_004-024I’ve already written about this excellent issue but the main point is the way in which Hickman continues to usurp reader expectations of who Death is and what the motives of the people he associates with could possibly be.

Wolverine and the X-Men #24tumblr_mh3fdcXzRF1rlcw3po2_1280Wolverine and the X-Men works best as a hangout comic. We know and presumably like these characters and seeing them try to live their lives, connect with one another and find a way to be more than just a hero is a great way to focus on the fact that these are kids, teachers and killers who still have lives.

Wolverine and the X-Men #24 takes much of the simpering romantic tension of the team and give the characters a chance to act on Valentine’s Day. Kitty and Bobby struggle with separating super-heroism from love, Jean and Quentin get honest about power, legacies and sex, Storm deals with her lingering feelings about T’Challa and her new ones for Logan and Toad gets sick of all these damn lovesick kids. It’s low key, promising and achingly sweet.

Daredevil #26originalThe best thing about Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil works because it constantly feels as if anything could happen. From Foggy’s diagnosis to Bullseye’s insane, web-like plots to bring down the Man Without Fear, the sense of constant danger reminds readers that Matt Murdock is the unluckiest man in the world.

The exceptional Daredevil #26 achieves a laser focus by putting Matt on the run. With Ikari’s death threat still hanging over his head, the assassin makes good on his threat, showing Matt that the whole city can and will destroy him. While the proper story is fantastic, the backup, where Foggy goes into a children’s cancer ward and sees how the kids deal with their mortality is a great reminder of what comics can and do mean to all of us.

Manhattan Projects #120b6fd9b29e25be39c830aa1d992df4a4Secret motives run deep in Hickman’s Manhattan Projects and Fermi’s otherness has always been a recurring motif. Since the first reveal the scientist was more than human, Fermi’s real motivation for joining the team has been in question. Now, he strikes back, hurting the one person he has grown close to and losing his sense of agency. Daghalin’s defeated questions at the issue’s end turn a violent bug hunt into a near tragedy and a psychotic Einstein dispatches another threat by issue’s end, moving the imperialistic Manhattan Projects deeper into unexplored space.

Hawkeye #11HAWKEYE01105_d7c8eThere’s a real focus on the senses running throughout Hawkeye. Whether it’s the washed out colors or the slowed down moments of Kate and Clint shooting, there’s a focus on how we view and experience the world around us, the mundane, the heart breaking and the heroic.

Hawkeye #11 takes that feeling into a new direction as Pizza Dog investigates Gil’s death. Readers are brought into an approximation of how the animal feels, filtered through a noir kaleidoscope. It’s a fun, ambitious issue and makes more of a case for the cult appeal of the series.

Green Lantern #20hal-jordan-vs-sinestroLike many readers, Geoff Johns was the name I associated with Green Lantern more than anything else and his final issue on the title proves why. The focus on bombastic action, foreshadowed plot twists, real heart and simmering conflicts gives a sense of finale to a landmark run on one of DC’s greatest characters. It’s the sort of epic, mythic issue that only DC can pull off, with characters who’ve gone beyond heroes and villains and become legends.

The Vulcan Quiche Awards: The Grand Finale

BatmanRobin-Zone-017-e1344659731947This is it, the best single issue of the year. Who’s got it? I guess you should probably read on and validate my crippling lack of self worth.

The Sarek Scramble: Awarded to the single finest issue of the year.

Honorable Mentions2292173-g8image1
There were so many truly incredible offerings this year that it was difficult to whittle them down. Grifter #8 made a case for Nathan Edmondson’s gritty, hyper-violent 90s style with plenty of heart as Cole faces off with his possessed brother and shows himself as the most dangerous man in the DCU. Batgirl #11 and Batman and Robin #12 both showed off what exactly makes the Bat-Family into a force to be reckoned with and showed the honor, compassion and skill of two of its most interesting members. Green Lantern Annual #1 crystalized the power of the unconventional pairing of Sinestro and Hal as they take on Black Hand with the highest of stakes. The Goon #39 nearly cracked the top 5 with a hysterical, biting take on crossovers, retcons, rebrandings and pretty much every comic book cardinal sin The Big Two have committed since the ’90s.

Fifth PlaceSAUCER6_1Saucer Country #6

What happens when fiction begins to determine how reality is viewed? What is the risk of building knowledge from constructed myth? Saucer Country’s expository issue on the nature of the UFO mythology and how popular culture such as “The X-Files” and competing tales of experiences with aliens has created a fiction that is believed and reported on so much that it has become the truth. Writer Paul Cornell masterfully weaves what could have been an expository bore into a conversation that doesn’t just make readers reconsider all they know about the series but everything we know about fiction.

Fourth Placebatman 10.1 - CopyBatman #10

The chant of the owls at the end of Scott Snyder’s epic is, appropriately, “who?” Who is behind the attack from the Court of Owls? Who is Lincoln March? Who knew Gotham better than Batman? In Snyder’s epic battle of wits between Bruce Wayne and his (maybe?) lost brother Lincoln, the answer is worth more than the fight. Snyder wove a tale of secrets, battles and vengeance into his impossibly brilliant Court of Owls that climaxes not with a fist fight but with a verbal jousting match between two forces battling for the soul of a tortured city.

Third PlaceManhattan-Projects-4-bannerManhattan Projects #3

The theme of Jonathan Hickman’s excellent Manhattan Projects has always been power and it’s in the exceptional third issue that power is seized by the cabal of narcissistic scientists. It’s a tense issue. As FDR dies, Truman is sworn in, only to face a decision he doesn’t have a say in. The nuke will drop, the war will end, the Manhattan Projects will seize power and become the main force in the future of Earth. As Truman becomes more and more frantic, the future is increasingly sealed in an issue that shows the power a single group of individuals can wield in the face of their last enemy.

Second Placetumblr_mbptso0lpg1qky2i3o1_1280Wolverine and the X-Men #18

Heroes fall. It’s a classic myth cycle. Innocents die in the face of overwhelming darkness. Weakness is punished. The best of us fall to inspire others. In the exemplary issue of Jason Aaron’s series, Broo is helpless to his feelings as Idie offers him a chance to escape the creature he struggles against being. While Wolverine makes his final struggle against a Phoenix-empowered Cyclops, the students of the Jean Grey Academy dance and surrender to impulses, leading Broo to an inevitable conflict with Kade Kilgore of the Hellfire Club. It’s a heartbreaking issue, one that makes readers reconsider the struggles of the alien who so desperately wants to be one of the rejects and the failures he faces. This is excellency in comic book storytelling and the power of the denouement gives the characters the honor and importance they deserve.

And the Scramble goes to…tumblr_mdbjg6Ke9M1qky2i3o1_1280Hawkeye #3

Things have gotten dark. DC has embraced arc based storytelling in an effort to sell more tie-in titles in an uncharacteristically dark style. Marvel hopes to recapture the sales they found during Avengers vs. X-Men with massive, universe spanning events. Comics weren’t fun in 2012. They were bleak affairs, filled alternatively with bad men doing bad things and heroes battling other heroes. What happened to the medium we loved, heroes being heroic, fighting for justice and goodness in a world that rejected such things? Matt Fraction’s exceptional Hawkeye dared to be that experimental. In the fantastic one-and-done, Clint Barton engages in a massive car chase throughout New York City, showing off all the goofy arrows that made his Silver Age representation a character to watch. What’s best is this is an issue that’s fun, one with humor and action, tension and characters we care about and want to succeed. In an industry that’d rather see its characters dragged through the mud in an attempt to find something unique about them, it’s revolutionary to see a hero show what it means to care about others and prove it.

The Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 4

WolverineXmen17It’s all wrapping up and it’s time to award the single best series of 2012. There was some fierce competition and some of the best titles of the year are left out in the cold but this is the second biggest award of the year. Let’s get to it.

The Next Generations – Awarded to the finest series of pictorials of the year.

Honorable MentionsBatman-Robin-Zone-001

There are really too many to count but a couple of series nearly cracked the top five. Uncanny X-ForceAnimal Man and FF all were in the running but for one reason or another, were left behind. Peter Tomasi’s Batman and Robin recovered from a brief Night of the Owls crossover misstep and focused on Damian’s need to prove himself to Dick, Jason and Tim led to one of the best moments of 2012 as the Robins join together in their own beautiful way. Jason Aaron’s exceptional Wolverine and the X-Men was just beat out for fifth place, mostly on the strength of three issues that defined the X-franchise, both pre- and post- Avengers vs. X-Men.

Fifth Placescan0007Saucer Country

In an election year which inevitably focused on broken promises, preconceptions and verbal badger baiting on both sides of the aisle, Saucer Country focused on an idealistic candidate with a past but the series’ focus on politics all serves the overarching narrative. While Arcadia lets her alien abduction become the focus of her presidential campaign, Professor Kidd focuses on the mythology, a complex series of contradicting narratives that form the body of not only UFO lore, but also of how we understand all stories. In the fantastic issue #6, Kidd’s speech on the way missing time impacts memory is fragmented, broken into increasingly smaller panels, showing the way readers are forced to fill in the blanks themselves through memory, knowledge, intuition and drawing on common myth. It’s an excellent series that showed it’s hand brilliantly in the first issue and continues to be one of Vertigo’s best.

Fourth Placeinc-bannerBatman Incorporated: Volume 2

Grant Morrison’s epic, gripping, poetic magnum opus has been a propulsive, incredibly readable take on Batman’s struggle for the souls of Gotham, his son and himself. It’s a book with a sense of pace that few, even Scott Snyder’s vaunted run on Batman, can’t match and each issue is another incredibly powerful look at a man who cannot and will not be stopped. This is the Batman book of 2012 and when it ends in 2013, I’m sure it will have a chance to hold that title again.

Third Place2719154-hawkeye4_03Hawkeye

Matt Fraction has become one of Marvel’s premier talents and his take on the Avengers’ archer shows why. Taking Clint back to his roots and showing him as the guy next door has highlighted his heroics and in storylines such as “The Tape,” his incredible, “Die Hard”-esque leaps into action are highlighted even more. It’s a series with charm, laughs and plenty of action, weirdly making it unique in a medium that’s increasingly been played for something entirely different.

Second Placescreen-shot-2012-07-09-at-9-52-48-pmManhattan Projects

Jonathan Hickman’s ever-growing cast of scientific geniuses, opportunists, schemers, computers, aliens, talking dogs and inter-dimensional doppelgängers have built a twisted look at the scientific world at the onset of the Cold War. Manhattan Projects is downright scary at times, showing men without ethics manipulate, kill and conquer as they pursue nothing but their own goals. It’s an inadvertent character study, mostly of the sinister, uncontrollable Oppenheimer and the moralistic but tortured Feynman and the ways their ideologies, beliefs and methods differ as a new world is created, corrupted and discarded.

And the Nextie goes to…xlargeSaga

Brian K. Vaughan did it again, creating an instant classic of sci-fi wonder, love, death and life in the first 8 issues of Saga. Vaughan has never produced a bad series and Saga is impressive even by his incredible standards, with instantly relatable characters, complex and morally compromised villains, a believable quest and the sort of adult interpersonal relationships rarely seen in comics these days. Protagonists Marko and Alana have such a believable connection, making their occasional spats all the more painful and their love all the more powerful. The story, told in retrospect by the couple’s newly born daughter, Hazel, has a wonderfully knowing combination of child-like innocence and a bright worldliness, perfectly suiting the space opera style of this majestic, must-read series.

Next Up: The lights are scanning and the drums are rolling as the best single issue of 2012 is crowned.